‘Outlaw’ Preservation in Jefferson, Texas

[imgbelt img=House-of-the-Seasons530.jpg]Does it take a raft of ordinances and outside support to save historic structures from demolition in a small town? Not necessarily, when the building stock is beautiful.

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The Alley-McKay House, one of many historic homes in Jefferson that have been restored and turned into bed and breakfasts.

In addition to its New Orleans-style ironwork and structures, downtown Jefferson boasts fine examples of Greek Revival (early 1800s to after the Civil War), Italianate (late 1800s), and Gothic (mid-1800s) architecture, all popular in Jefferson’s heyday, as well as a few Queen Anne & Victorian Eclectic buildings.

There were two central factors involved in Jefferson’ economic decline: the destruction of the “Great Raft” and the growth of America’s railroads. The Great Raft was a naturally occurring log jam that created a 150 mile dam on the Red River. This natural dam allowed water levels in Caddo Lake and on Big Cypress Bayou to remain high enough for commercial steamboat travel. When the Great Raft was destroyed water levels fell, making Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou unnavigable. 

Also by the 1870s, the railroads were coming to Texas, which eliminated the need for steamboats. The railroads killed the steamboat trade in Northeast Texas just as it eliminated the great cattle drives across Central & West Texas. Jefferson was unable to catch the train of railroad commerce, as the new Texas & Pacific rail line, from Texarkana to Marshall, bypassed the town altogether.

With the demise of the steamboat industry and the rise of Marshall, Texas, as a hub of the Texas & Pacific Railway, Jefferson’s population plummeted. Without the commerce of transportation, Jefferson’s business people exited for greener pastures leaving the infrastructure behind. Jefferson entered the 20th century as just another small town on a Texas map.

In the 20th century national, state and local leaders endorsed the concept of Urban Renewal. Especially after World War II, many Americans want to embrace the new and cut ties with the old. Thousands of historic buildings and structures were demolished across America, with new apartments, shopping centers and modern buildings taking their places. Jefferson, Texas, missed Urban Renewal altogether. When urban renewal movement elsewhere was at full tilt, Jefferson’s historic homes and buildings basically were “mothballed”. There weren’t any large businesses or corporations longing to tear down the old and build the new. Jefferson got by with what it had.

And what it had began to be seen as an asset. In the spring of 1939, thirty-five Jefferson ladies formed the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club. The action taken by this organization is the main reason Historic Jefferson, Texas, still exists.

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